John Calipari didn’t mince words when asked about Shai Gilgeous-Alexander following Kentucky’s 66-61 victory over Georgia on Sunday night.
“He’s our best player,” the UK coach said with no qualifiers.
Over two games in three days — against archrival Louisville and then in the league opener against the Bulldogs — there was no doubting that statement.
Gilgeous-Alexander picked up where he left off, following up his career performance against the Cardinals with another star turn Sunday, pouring in 21 points to go with five rebounds, four assists, three steals and two blocked shots — and coming up big in the biggest moments — against Georgia.
“The greatest thing about him,” Calipari added, “he’s coming off the bench and not saying anything. Doesn’t worry about his shots or anything. He’s just playing.”
The UK coach repeated his claim from Friday — when Gilgeous-Alexander torched U of L for 24 points — that the freshman from Canada plays the whole game with a smile on his face, not feeling the pressure of the big moments that sometimes hinders his young teammates.
Calipari name-dropped former NBA point guard Sam Cassell, called him the “best late-game player” he’d ever coached, and likened the demeanor that led to that crunch-time success to the stuff he sees in Gilgeous-Alexander.
Calipari said he once asked Cassell what made him such a great player in those situations, why he was often the guy who made the shots at the end.
“And he said, ‘Because I’m not afraid to miss them.’ See, when you think every basket, miss or make, identifies who you are, it’s hard to play,” Calipari said. “Because every shot is like, ‘Oh, man, I can’t play, I can’t play, I can’t play, I can’t play.’ You can’t be that. Shai’s just playing.”
Gilgeous-Alexander seemed a bit embarrassed when a reporter relayed Calipari’s claim that he was the best player on this Kentucky team.
“I know Coach is a good coach, and he’s going to put all of us in a position to be successful as a group and as individuals,” he said. “So I’m not really worried about it.”
A follow-up question on whether that type of praise was “validation” for a player ranked near the bottom of UK’s 2017 recruiting class, Gilgeous-Alexander responded simply with a quiet, humble, “Yes, sir.”
Though not as highly touted as most of his classmates, Gilgeous-Alexander was still a top-50 national prospect, and recruiting analysts were high on his basketball future. Few, however, probably thought he’d be making this kind of impact this early in his career in the kind of situations he’s seen over the past few days.
Gilgeous-Alexander had a run of four consecutive double-digit scoring games a few weeks back, then scored nine points against Virginia Tech and just six — his lowest total since the second game of the season — in the loss to UCLA.
He said he went back and watched the film from that day against the Bruins — he’s been watching more film lately, he pointed out — and noticed something.
“I realized there were spots where I let the defense off the hook, where I could attack them and put pressure on them,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I just tried to take advantage of that in these last two games.”
Georgia Coach Mark Fox praised the UK freshman’s ability to draw fouls — he was 12-for-13 from the line Sunday night — and called that one of the biggest differences in the game.
Gilgeous-Alexander had so many other big moments.
His three-pointer with 4:39 left put Kentucky up 54-53, and the Cats never lost the lead again after trailing for most of the night.
“I’m confident in my shot, obviously,” he said. “And I knew that I was open and I had to shoot it and was ready to shoot it, and I just knocked it down.”
Three minutes later, his steal led to a three-pointer from Wenyen Gabriel, a shot that put UK up six points with 1:39 left — the dagger play of the contest.
Gilgeous-Alexander has started just two of 13 games this season, but he’s third on the team in minutes played, and — after this three-day stretch — is now the third-leading scorer on the squad with 11.6 points per game.
He said Sunday night that he didn’t necessarily come to Lexington with a chip on his shoulder. He just wanted to prove to his new teammates that he could play alongside them at this level.
“He’s been incredible these last two games,” said Hamidou Diallo, the Cats’ leading scorer this season. “He’s been the best player on the floor these last two games. That’s the nature of this team. We got seven or eight guys that can come in and be the best player on the floor on any given night. And that’s why we’re going pull out wins. I feel like that’s why we have the upper hand on certain teams, because it’s just so many guys to stop. You stop one guy, and the next guy picks it up.
“That’s just the nature of it. I’m just happy for him, and he’s just going to keep getting better every day.”
No. 17 Kentucky at LSU
8:30 p.m. Wednesday (SEC Network)